Regardless of race, color or creed, everyone’s Irish today when millions gather to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Paying tribute to what started as a religious feast for Ireland’s patron saint has turned into a global phenomenon featuring green beer, green rivers and even green shakes at McDonald’s. Read on to find out how these not-necessarily-Irish traditions came to be.
According to some accounts, the original holiday color was blue. Sometime in the 18th century green became the mainstay, representing the lush landscape of The Emerald Isle, the nation’s symbolic shamrock and the traditionally green Irish revolutionary flags.
In Irish folklore, leprechauns were cranky tricksters who you wouldn’t want to mess with. The cheerful, friendly ‘lil fairy most Americans associate with St. Paddy’s Day stems from a 1959 Walt Disney film called Darby O’Gill & the Little People. The Americanized, good-natured leprechaun soon became a symbol of St. Patrick’s Day and Ireland in general.
Pinch Me, I’m Irish
In America during the early 1700s, revelers believed that wearing green made them invisible to leprechauns, who would pinch and, in some accounts, steal anyone they could see (i.e., anyone not wearing green). People began pinching those not wearing green on St. Paddy’s Day as a reminder to beware of the wily little sprites.
You may have worn a shamrock tattoo or donned a clover-covered necklace on some St. Patrick’s Day past. According to Irish legend, St. Patrick used a three-leaved clover, or shamrock, to illustrate the idea of the Holy Trinity, versus the good luck associated with the four-leaved variety, a mistake many Americans make.
The Green Shake
Introduced in 1970, and discontinued in 1990, the deliciously minty McDonald’s Shamrock Shake returned to select stores in 2008. Only available for the month of March, the shake has received rave reviews by milkshake connoisseurs, who have entire websites dedicated to finding all of the shake-selling McDonald’s outposts.
Kiss Me, I’m Irish
Without a doubt the most popular Paddy’s Day T-shirt slogan, “Kiss Me, I’m Irish,” is a reference to The Blarney Stone. Legend holds that kissing the stone brings good luck. If you can’t make it to Ireland to kiss the actual stone, convention says the next-best option is to kiss an Irishman. We’re pretty certain a guy invented this tradition.
The River Dye
Chicago has dyed its river green for St. Patrick’s Day every year since 1962, when city workers realized that the dye they used to trace illegal dumping would provide a fun way to celebrate the holiday. They released 100 pounds of dye into the river, which kept it green for an entire week. Chicago now uses just enough dye to last one day in order to be kinder to Mother Earth.
Lights on the ESB
To attract nighttime attention during the 1964 World’s Fair, New York City added floodlights to the top 30 floors of The Empire State Building. Since then, the lights have changed colors to match seasonal events, including St. Patrick’s Day, when the top of Manhattan’s tallest building is greener than a freshly picked shamrock.
The First St. Paddy’s Parade didn’t take place in Ireland but in the U.S. in 1762, when Irish soldiers serving in the British military marched through the New York City streets playing music. In America today, New York, Boston and Chicago boast the biggest St. Paddy’s Day parades, with New York being the longest-running civilian parade in the world. (Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is a wee 75 years old.)
Drinking … a Lot
While Americans associate St. Paddy’s with binge drinking, the Irish consider it a religious holiday. Until the 1970s, a law required all Irish pubs to close every March 17th. Drinking on St. Paddy’s really only became popular in Ireland post-1995, with the start of a national campaign to attract tourists for the holiday. It worked — over a million people now attend Dublin’s five-day festival.
Guinness Dry Stout was first brewed in Dublin during the mid-18th century and has become one of Ireland’s most famous exports. Though the company has no formal connection to St. Patrick’s Day, since the brew is tantamount to Ireland and Irish bars, it has become the unofficial drink of the holiday. With fewer calories than most light beers, you can toss a bunch back without feeling guilty.
Those who celebrate old-school by eating a meal of corned beef and cabbage are only really getting it partly right: The dish was originally eaten with bacon, not corned beef. Irish immigrants in America couldn’t afford the traditional bacon, so they substituted it with corned beef, a cheaper option they picked up from their Jewish neighbors. (Too bad they didn’t grab some bagels while they were at it!)
You may hear revelers raise their stout and yell “slainté!,” the Irish word for health. Pronounced slightly differently depending on dialect (and drunkenness), shout out something phonetically similar to SLAN-cheh, and impress those who actually hail from The Land O’ Leprechauns.
Since the 1990s, each Irish Prime Minister has made a trip to the White House around St. Patrick’s Day to present our commander in chief with a shamrock to honor the ties between the two countries and to thank America for helping Irish immigrants during trying times.